Last Meal: Singapore
What might Singapore's hawker food be like in the future?
In the near future, the food that is available for our consumption has changed, but a longing for the taste of "home" always remains. What is this instinct towards nostalgia, or a desire to return to the past, which transforms itself into an anxiety of progress?
SAD: The Last Meal addresses Singapore's obsession with nostalgia, by looking at the alleged death of the Singaporean hawker, the corresponding fetishisation and commercialisation of local food iconography, and somewhere in between, the anxiety around losing a facet of heritage that this country holds so dear—our local food culture. If home were to cease, what would you like as your last meal?
The programme takes the form of an interactive art experience with a four-course food tasting menu designed specially by Chef Ming Tan, in collaboration with visual artist and technologist Debbie Ding.
Last Meal was a collaboration with Chef Ming (of JAM at Siri House) to reinterpret local/hawker fare into a anxiety-provoking menu to be served to a live audience. I was brought together with Ming by The Substation. The starting point for our conversation had been one of my past projects from a Healthcare Workshop with the Kyoto Institute of Design x Royal College of Art, whilst I was doing my MA at Design Interactions (RCA). In a way, that workshop's premise was already a bit like smashing two worlds together: you had that base of a historically practical and functional Japanese approach to researching and designing for elderly care (I remember our Japanese collaborator bringing to us these booklets of amazing innovative mobility aids and novel healthcare aids designed to assist in every aspect of elderly care).
Me, Calum Bowden, and Hiroko Narasaki worked on a project imagining a scenario where a robot was to prepare your "last meal", having collected a lifetime of data of your food preferences, being able to robotically prepare the food you wanted in a texture that you could consume despite all your age-related changes in chewing and swallowing physiology. We discussed the ways in which factors such as end-of-life, food preferences, and necessary food modifications could be determined, and surveyed Japanese people on a list of foods they liked most.
At the time we also thought that there might also be the issue where a meal is the sum of many parts and that people develop habits for eating certain foods together with others. But when we collect the data about the meal, the essential connections between unusual connections could also be broken - and odd pairings might be made. For example, in this case someone told us they loved foods such as Annin Tofu, Premium Niigata Rice, and Ashirari Decorations (to liven up the plating of her food). But in reality, no Japanese person would logically make a menu of Annin Tofu (Almond Jelly) together with Rice.
In this project, we wanted to engage with a wider set of concerns facing the food industry in the near future (and specific to Singapore). Rather than to capture nostalgia in a perfectly rendered dish, the idea was to invoke the sense of the uncanny through subtle means. A twist of presentation, an unfamiliar texture, a physical constraint.
We imagined someone eating these foods in a near-future post-apocalyptic bunker, the person in the bunker was very specifically us. A Singaporean, here in the present. It wasn't a baby from the future who hadn't had the chance to gain the lived experience of enjoying hawker food in the form that we eat right now. It wasn't someone from a foreign country being introduced to Singaporean hawker cuisine for the first time. It wasn't about exoticising or fetishising our nostalgia for hawker cuisine and 'heritage foods'. It was instead about transporting a Singaporean living in the present into a distant, uncertain food future where perhaps food security was an issue; where automation and efficiency was top priority to the extent of influencing hawker practices, where alternative proteins had become widely accepted in an era of land scarcity; where steady state foods would be commonplace backups; where a rapidly aging population would seek out enzyme softened versions of favourite foods to recapture the tastes of olde...
SAD: The Last Meal was part of The Vanishing, Or Time Goes Away, the final chapter of The Substation’s 2018/19 programme "Cities change."